The 15 most spectacular places to visit in India

Mughal palaces, towering Hindu temples, mountain monasteries, lost kingdoms, cultured cities, and elegant hill villages in the Himalayan foothills compete for attention in a country proudly casting off colonialism’s heritage and remaking itself as a global superpower. With such great diversity on offer, the only question is where to begin.

Well, our advice is to avoid taking on too much in a single visit. Choose an area—perhaps the tropical south, the northern plains, or the Himalayan mountain valleys – and set aside time to pause and take in the environment as you work your way through your must-see list.

Wherever you go, you can expect a mind-blowing and exciting burst of color, soul-soaring splendor, earth-shaking history, and moments of absolute peace. The combination of magic and mayhem is what makes visiting India such an exciting and compelling experience.

While compiling this list was not simple, we are delighted to submit our top 10 picks for the greatest places to visit in India.

1. Agra, Uttar Pradesh

Ideal for romantics and enthusiasts of Mughal history.

Best Places to visit in India - Taj Mahal
Breathtaking beauty of the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal, which is at the top of everyone’s bucket list, is every bit as gorgeous as people expect it to be: a stunning monument to lost love crafted from pearl-white marble. Views of the world’s most beautiful building framed by a Mughal archway or floating above the hazy Yamuna River will be memorable highlights of any vacation to India.

The erstwhile Mughal capital, however, is more than just the Taj Mahal. Add a few days to visit Emperor Akbar’s architecturally beautiful tomb, his rose-red sandstone former capital at Fatehpur Sikri, and the sprawling Agra Fort, one of India’s most epic fortresses. Agra, which attracts millions of visitors each year, is not always pleasant, but it is always fascinating.

2. Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

Ideal for profound spirituality.

Few cities are as enticing and enchanting as Varanasi, the sacred Hindu city. Millennia-old death rituals take place on a daily basis at the cremation ghats that border the banks of the sacred River Ganges, while the neighboring old town’s maze-like passageways provide dizzying surprises at every turn. We challenge anyone to visit without doing some personal soul-searching about their place in the universe.

Be prepared for some hurdles. The streets of the world’s oldest living city reveal the harsh reality of life and death, as well as the injustices that continue to create hardship for many people in India. But there are also quiet moments: rise early and explore the ghats (riverside steps) to see Varanasi at its most spiritual, with its attention concentrated on the sacred river, before the tourist crowds disrupt the mood.

Planning tip: View Varanasi’s famed ghats from a rowboat. Boatmen begin offering their services at boat stations along the Ganges’ west bank at dawn, presenting vistas of a riverfront that has changed just marginally over the last seven centuries.


3. Mumbai, Maharashtra

Ideal for urban adventurers and Bollywood aspirations.

Mumbai is the ideal location to feel the pulse of modern India. The most densely populated city in the subcontinent is home to Bollywood film stars, ambitious market vendors, bankers and executives rushing to work in offices, and fishing families with roots dating back to when this huge metropolis was merely a modest village.

To learn more about the disparities of life in modern Mumbai, take a socially responsible tour with Reality Tours & Travel through the city’s vast and impoverished Dharavi district; 80% of the proceeds go back to social projects that provide opportunities for those left behind by Mumbai’s push for success.

The boat ride to Elephanta Island’s 1500-year-old, UNESCO World Heritage-listed rock-cut temples is a must-see, but superb street cuisine is the city’s true leveler. Don’t leave without trying Mumbai’s distinctive snack, bhel poori – puffed rice and fried dough with lentils, onions, herbs, and savory chutneys, which are best enjoyed on the beach in Chowpatty or Juhu.

Detour: If you have time in Mumbai, visit the northern suburbs, where Sanjay Gandhi National Park protects a vast area of dry woodland that is home to leopards, deer, monkeys, and quiet Buddhist cave monasteries.


4. Ladakh

Best for a unique taste of Tibet.

Ladakh, an ancient Buddhist kingdom in India’s far northwest, is culturally and geographically closer to western Tibet than anywhere else in the country, protected from the monsoon by the Himalayan rain shadow. In this high-altitude moonscape, towering Tibetan monasteries blend into a landscape of desolate rock and wind-sculpted hoodoos.

Most visitors begin in Leh, the atmospheric capital, before moving on to adjacent valleys for homestay treks and tours to see turquoise salt lakes and colorful masked dances at ancient monasteries. Ladakh was unaffected by China’s Cultural Revolution, making it one of the closest experiences independent visitors may have with Tibet’s ancient culture.

Planning tip: Getting to Ladakh is half of the enjoyment. Even in the dead of winter, flights to Leh are available, but the best way to get there is by vehicle from Srinagar in Kashmir or Manali in Himachal Pradesh. Buses and shared 4WDs run as long as the passes are open, from June to the end of September, or you can ride the trip on an Enfield motorcycle.


5. Kolkata, West Bengal

Ideal for culture vultures.

Kolkata (previously Calcutta), the capital of colonial British India until 1911, is India’s third-largest city and the country’s intellectual and cultural hub. Spend a few days visiting Kolkata’s vibrant bazaars, cultural museums, and British-era landmarks, and you’ll fall in love with the city’s unstoppable vitality.

Sign up for a Bengali cookery lesson and visit the famed temple at Kalighat, where sacrifices are made to the goddess Kali. If you have extra time, consider booking an overnight wildlife-watching tour to the adjacent Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, a famed royal Bengal tiger stalking territory.

Planning tip: Try to arrange your visit around the Durga Puja celebration, which takes place in September or October and has vividly colored effigies of the goddess displayed in pandals (ceremonial tents) across the city.


6. Jaisalmer, Rajasthan

Ideal for desert drama.

The desert state of Rajasthan exemplifies India at its most beautiful and softly tinted. Expect to see camel caravans, elegant castles, powerful forts, turbaned traders, and vibrant colors against a background of shifting desert dunes. It’s wonderfully picturesque, but it’s also very popular with tourists, so plan to share the experience with a large throng.

The pink-sandstone monuments of Jaipur, the ice-white lakeside palaces of Udaipur, and vistas of blue-hued Jodhpur from its high fort are all breathtaking experiences, but Jaisalmer, which appears to have been sculpted from the desert’s living rock, is the most sensory-stimulating.

Its twisted pathways, towering citadel, and magnificently adorned haveli (traditional dwellings) could have been taken from the pages of One Thousand and One Nights, while the surrounding desert provides an evocative scene for overnight camel safaris.

While it is feasible to stay within the guarded city, increased visitor numbers are affecting Jaisalmer’s ancient heart. We recommend staying outside the walls instead; there are numerous hotels and guesthouses within walking distance of the fort.

A traditional rice barge on Kerala’s backwaters (between Alappuzha and Kollam).
A slow-paced boat through the languid backwaters of Kerala offers a getaway from India’s beautiful turmoil (Eddie Gerald/Lonely Planet).


7. The Kerala backwaters

Best for fans of slow travel.

Following the dusty, thickly populated northern plains, tropical South India provides a lusher, more relaxed vacation experience. The classic vacation here is a slow-paced canal boat through Kerala’s emerald-green backwaters, a 900-mile network of sluggish, coconut-fringed rivers that provide views of an ever-changing tableau of South Indian life.

Hire a traditional houseboat in Alappuzha for a multi-day excursion, then relax with a delectable Keralan seafood dish prepared by your personal chef as the sun sets over glistening waterways and silhouetted palm fronds. After the boat, it’s only a short trip along the coast to old Kochi (Cochin), which has cantilevered fishing nets and Kathakali dance theaters.


8. Bodhgaya, Bihar

Ideal for budding Buddhists.

India’s sacred geography defines it as the origin of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism (as well as countless other lesser faiths). Even here, few places evoke greater emotion than the Bodhi tree, where Prince Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha (Awakened One).

The town that has grown up around this sacred site is home to hundreds of Tibetan and Southeast Asian-style temples and monasteries, as well as a thriving Buddhist teaching and course program. It’s the perfect place for any spiritual explorer.

To gain a feel for Bodhgaya’s rhythms, arrive early at the Mahabodhi complex and contemplate on the nature of impermanence with chanting Tibetan pilgrims. Travel experiences do not get much more meaningful than this.

Planning tip: Bodhgaya is just one stop on the “Buddhist circuit,” which includes major spots from the historical Buddha’s life. Local busses connect Rajgir, the site of one of the first Buddhist monasteries, with Nalanda’s old Buddhist university complex.


9. Darjeeling, West Bengal

Ideal for a premium cup of tea with a view.

Darjeeling is easy to fall for, with its cold breezes from the eastern Himalayas, manicured tea fields, and magnificent Himalayan views.

For the perfect day, watch the sunrise over 8586m (20,169ft) Kangchenjunga, take a plantation tour to learn the difference between first-flush and white teas, linger over an afternoon cuppa at the Windamere Hotel, and learn about the Tibetan experience at the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre.

The most elegant way to arrive is by nostalgic, narrow-gauge toy train; book tickets in advance and check to see if the steam service is running (the diesel train follows the same route but lacks elegance). Don’t miss the Buddhist gompas (monasteries) scattered across the city. Historic Yiga Choeling Gompa, located below Darjeeling on the outskirts of Ghum, possesses a peculiar enchantment.

Planning tip: Darjeeling isn’t the only attractive destination in the neighborhood. Shared 4WDs travel from Darjeeling to Kalimpong, another historic town with colorful Buddhist monasteries, Himalayan views, and beautiful flower farms.

10. Hampi, Karnataka

Best for a complete immersion in history.

Best Places to Visit - Hampi
All throughout Hampi, history spills out.

Between the 14th and 16th centuries CE, the Vijayanagar empire’s capital at Hampi housed half a million people, yet this ancient metropolis was nearly abandoned, leaving 3700 stone structures dispersed around a surreal plain of stones.

This is a place to spend time, meandering between the boulders to discover carved masonry, neglected shrines, and the magnificent remnants of some of South India’s most striking stone temples.

As you travel, you’ll notice rock climbers climbing bouldering climbs with chisel marks left by old masons. Rent a motorcycle or scooter and go further afield, including the hilltop shrine where the monkey god Hanuman first met Lord Rama.

Planning tip: Hampi is a short bus ride from the town of Hosapete; arrive by overnight train from Goa’s beaches, medieval Hyderabad, or the sophisticated southern metropolis of Bangalore.


11. Arunachal Pradesh

Ideal for stepping off the map.

The eight Northeast States, located near Bangladesh, represent India’s wild frontier. Until the 1990s, this region of rough mountain valleys was generally off-limits to tourists, and visitor numbers remain low; those who travel here earn the right to call themselves genuine explorers.

Sikkim is the most well-known destination in the Northeast States, but we recommend heading east to the forested foothills and jagged mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, where tribal communities practice a wide range of traditional belief systems, from the Buddhist Monpa people of Tawang to the animist Apatani people of the Ziro Valley.

Planning tip: Traveling to Arunachal Pradesh requires some work; you must seek for a permit to enter the state, and local transportation is sporadic. The ideal method to explore is with a chartered 4WD and driver (which may be easily arranged in Guwahati, Assam).


12. Amritsar, Punjab

Ideal for experiencing the power of devotion.

Best Places to VIsit - India - Amritsar
Few places offer such a strong sense of devotion as Amritsar’s Golden Temple.

There are plenty of pilgrimage locations in India, but few can match the bright spirit of Amritsar’s Golden Temple. The Sikh religion’s most sacred place is a glittering jewel box floating in a mirror-like sacred pool, thronged day and night by an incredible number of pilgrims. You don’t have to be spiritual to experience its tremendous rhythms.

Joining pilgrims at the Sri Harmandir Sahib, the complex’s gold-paneled shrine, is a deeply touching experience. Staying overnight in the pilgrims’ hostels that surround the temple site heightens the intensity. A gift is greatly welcomed for lodging if feasible, but pilgrims of all means will be accommodated if space is available. You can also eat at the temple langar (kitchen), which feeds 100,000 people for free each day (a donation is appreciated if you can afford it).

Planning tip: Don’t limit your investigations to the Golden Temple; the neighboring bazaars are vibrant and bustling, with vendors selling everything from embroidered chappals (sliders) to brass and polished steel pots and pans.


13. Mysore (Mysuru), Karnataka

Perfect for feeling like a Maharaja.

Mysuru, an atmospheric South Indian city, boasts several attractions, including towering temples, one of India’s most evocative marketplaces, and Mysuru Palace, the ancestral home of the Wadiyar maharajas. No edifice more eloquently depicts the lavish lives of India’s royal rulers; every room is a fantasy, and every item is a treasure.

Around the palace, there are bustling bazaars, interesting museums, and a line of Hindu temples built in the traditional Dravidian (Southern Indian) architectural style. Spend several days roaming the streets, going up to the Sri Chamundeshwari Temple on Chamundi Hill, and dining on hot vegetarian thalis (plate lunches) at Mysuru restaurants.


14. Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh

Ideal for tiger encounters.

Madhya Pradesh’s national parks are among the best sites on the earth to see royal Bengal tigers up close. The sight of one of these striped superstars loping out of the forest will stick with you for a lifetime, as will the realization of how few tigers remain in the wild.

Everyone has a favorite tiger reserve, but we recommend Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve near Jabalpur because to the abundance of wildlife in its central Tala range. These arid woodlands are home to approximately 70 tigers, as well as leopards, monkeys, deer, and gaur, India’s largest wild buffalo. If you commit several days to 4WD safaris, you’ll have a good chance of seeing elephants.

Planning tip: The best time to view tigers is early in the morning – safaris begin at 5:30 a.m. to catch tigers before they settle into a shady location in the undergrowth to sleep through the heat of the day.


15. Madurai, Tamil Nadu

Ideal for religious splendor.

Hindu temples in South India are a jubilant celebration of the sacred, with highly colored images of deities and supernatural beings that are both scary and majestic. The towering gopurams (gateway towers) of the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, serve as a three-dimensional guide to the Hindu pantheon’s primary deities.

The current temple was built in the 17th century, although Meenakshi, the Pandya kingdom’s queen and an incarnation of the goddess Parvati, has held the place sacrosanct for at least 2000 years. Come early in the morning to see the temple come to life, then stop by Murugan Idli Shop for some of the best idli in the south.

Detour: Tiruchirappalli, sometimes known as Trichy, is a short bus or rail travel from Madurai and another popular temple destination. The towering Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple is one of the world’s largest Hindu sanctuaries, spanning 155 acres (63 hectares) and including 21 deity-encrusted towers. More temples crown the rocky outcrop in the heart of the city, providing spectacular views over the rooftops.